Jon Mark Beilue: Success outside the classroom


‘Journey of the Buffalo’ designed to improve student well-being

JourneyBuffalo_JMB_BPhoto: Students’ experience at West Texas A&M University typically begins with the traditional Buff Branding event. The University now is rolling out a new, holistic approach to student affairs called Journey of the Buffalo.

In an idyllic college world, freshman rush a sorority or pledge a fraternity, or make friends in an organization, classroom or dorm. They find the major that fits their skills, make the necessary grades while holding a part-time job, graduate and move into a career not possible without college as a springboard.

But for every freshman that moves seamlessly from high school to college, there are almost as many who do not. They struggle with loneliness, academics and finances. It’s a crash course in Real World 101.

There were 1,454 freshman who entered West Texas A&M University in the fall of 2022. So there are 1,454 stories. None of them has traveled exactly the same road.

The WT Division of Student Affairs believes it will make the journey smoother with, appropriately enough, the “Journey of the Buffalo,” a pilot program implemented this spring to help students remain not just students, but also to grow and reach their potential.

“We are just so excited about this,” said Amber Black, assistant vice-president for student success and well-being.

Student Affairs received two grants totaling $300,000 in October from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board to implement an initiative to improve student well-being and foster healthy relationships for those who are leaving home for the first time.

It will be a first-ever coordinated program between Student Affairs, Advising Services and the Office for Diversity and Inclusion, with all divisions focused on the same three-part initiative. The program is in the pilot stage this spring with full implementation in the fall of 2023.

“We are all very passionate about students persisting and earning their degrees,” Black said. “In our world of student affairs, it’s about everyone working together on agreed-upon learning outcomes to help students persist in college.”

There’s not much this program can do for academics or finances – two key factors in retention – but its focus instead is to improve interpersonal skills and relationships that can help weather the hard times and sweeten the good times.

“We don’t lose students so much because of academics,” said Dr. Chris Thomas, vice president of student affairs. “We lose students because of the relationship with the institution. We’re focused on student success because successful students are retained students.”

Retaining freshmen is a major focus of universities. The first year is crucial. Studies show if a student remains in college into their sophomore year, their chance of graduating or at least attending multiple years greatly increases.

According to U.S. News and World Report, the latest national freshman retention rate is 61.1 percent. WT’s is 69 percent. Among other schools that USNWR categorizes as regional universities, Lubbock Christian is 70 percent, Angelo State is 69 percent, UT-Permian Basin is 66 percent, Midwestern is 65 percent and Eastern New Mexico is 62 percent.

Among those in the national university category, the University of Texas is 96 percent; Texas A&M University, under whose system WT is a member, is 93 percent; and Texas Tech University is 86 percent.

The total college experience

JourneyBuffalo_JMB_CPhoto: The pilot program Journey of the Buffalo is geared to improve student retention by more fully integrating students to campus life.

“One of the reasons students sometimes leave WT is they face a setback, maybe they struggle in a course for the first time. They end up failing the course, and they think college is just not for me,” said Chance Haugen, assistant vice president for campus community and engagement.

“Often, it’s just a temporary setback instead of ‘you can’t do college.’ We want students to understand life has a lot of temporary setbacks. If you can remain positive and work through those things, you can still be a success as you go through your journey at WT.”

Black said entering freshman are asked what they hope to experience at WT and nearly all will speak of education, but just as much, they speak of relationships.

“It’s really cool to hear their answers,” she said. “They talk about careers and the fun they want to have, but overwhelmingly the biggest thing we hear from students is they want to find lifelong friends in college. When people reflect on their college experience, it’s about the people they meet and the ways they grow.

“One of our goals is we want students to be challenged and motivated to be people of integrity and realize their potential. In WT 125: From the Panhandle to the World , (WT President Walter V.) Wendler talks about being good citizens as part of the mission. It’s a personal growth journey.”

One of the tenets of the program is fostering a togetherness within students, to emphasize a sense of belonging.

“You cannot underestimate the value of this,” Black said. “If a student feels a sense of belonging, they are more likely to persist and earn their degree. I grew up in Miami, Texas, and came to WT to make some friends. Our students are very much like that, but it’s not as easy as it sounds. You have to be intentional and meet students where they are.”

One of the changes in the fall semester, Haugen said, will be to group students in residential halls by majors rather than randomly. It likely increases connections through similar courses and studying tips, but common interests and backgrounds as well.

“A lot of growth is outside the academic classroom,” Haugen said. “When it comes to personal well-being and healthy relationships, at student affairs, that’s our bread and butter. With this new program, the entire division will be on the same page.”

Activities and events will be implemented as well as providing tools for a personal well-being toolbox.

“This program will be implemented with every new student to make sure they can use all of the tools available to them,” said Alyson Ries, director of Advising Services, which works with all students in their first two years at WT. “This program will help our students see the bigger picture of how it all fits together.”

JourneyBuffalo_JMB_DPhoto: The ultimate goal of Journey of the Buffalo is to ensure students successfully complete their education at West Texas A&M University.

Do you know of a student, faculty member, project, an alumnus or any other story idea for “WT: The Heart and Soul of the Texas Panhandle?” If so, email Jon Mark Beilue at [email protected] .